People are passionate about trees. Look no further for proof of this than the incident that took place in Santa Fe on Tuesday, Aug. 6, when Steve Thomas, owner of Tree Doctor 911, was accused of striking a worker who was cutting down an old cottonwood in Sena Plaza. Thomas, who was protesting the removal of a tree that many in town deemed healthy, told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “I feel that’s what God created me for. I feel peace and fulfillment more than in anything else when I help save trees.”
It’s a sentiment that Sean Cavanaugh, a painter of trees, can relate to. “People get really attached to them,” said the 50-year-old artist. “They’re the oldest members of their communities. I totally get that.”
Cavanaugh is showing a body of work — most are watercolors — at Yares Art in the exhibition Under the Elder’s Gaze (through Sept. 28). Each composition is a detailed view of a different species, rendered with a high degree of realism but divorced from any environmental context. In each composition, he presents just a segment — close-up views of tree trunks that give no indication of height or girth — rendered against stark white backgrounds.
“They all become a little bit of a Rorschach test,” he said. “Pulling them out of the landscape abstracts them in some ways, even though they’re pretty tight and pretty realistic.”
In focusing on small sections of a tree, Cavanaugh can highlight its texture, color, and the varied terrain of its surface, so that each painting is like a landscape in microcosm. Some have orange bark peeling and curling from the trunk, some are blistered, some have ribbed or striated patterns. Some are golden yellow and banded like the limbs of a mummy. Pale green and white lichen flecks the bark of a few, and in others the bark has fallen away, revealing the pink and fleshy tones of wood beneath.
All of this gives the viewer an appreciation for the stunning diversity of tree life. Don’t be surprised if you start looking at trees in a new way when you leave the gallery, noticing their individual characteristics as if for the first time.
“A lot of the imagery comes from the Catskills,” Cavanaugh said. “I grew up in New York City, but my grandmother always had a place outside of Woodstock [in upstate New York]. That was my connection to the woods. I’d go walk around in the woods there, and I still do. Once you get a little spark, you start wandering through the forest, and you’re just scanning for interesting trees.”
Cavanaugh doesn’t just confine himself to the Catskills. The show is a cross-section of trees from California, Maui, the Caribbean, and even Santa Fe. (“There’s one aspen tree from up near the ski basin,” he said.)
But Under the Elder’s Gaze isn’t didactic. Cavanaugh doesn’t identify the different species in his titles, emphasizing their natural beauty instead. He photographs deep in the woods and then paints back in his studio on Manhattan’s West Side.
“A lot of people are like, ‘You’re here surrounded by all this humanity and buildings and everything, and you’re painting trees?’ I do cityscapes sometimes, but this is the kind of stuff I’m more drawn to. I always have been. At the end of the day, it’s what I want to see hanging on my wall. People search for deep meanings but, really, it’s just the stuff I want to see.”
Cavanaugh is one in a line of distinguished painters. His grandfather and grandmother were Milton and Sally Avery, whose private arts foundation and estate he oversees; his mother is March Avery. All of those artists shared a similar aesthetic, painting figurative works that emphasize abstraction, and that were rendered with an almost Fauvist sense of color. Cavanaugh’s work is a radical departure.
“When I look at Sean’s work, I look at the environment magnified to a point of abstraction,” said Dennis Yares, whose gallery represents Cavanaugh and shows the work of Milton Avery. “Milton and Sally and March are more primitive,” he said. “I admire the fact that he’s able to separate himself from his grandfather’s, mother’s, and grandmother’s work.”
Cavanaugh didn’t always paint detailed compositions of trees. Earlier in his career, back in the late 1990s, he was painting more traditional landscapes, replete with mountains and valleys and luminous, cloud-filled skies. But, sometime in the mid-aughts, he changed his focus, zeroing in on small aspects of landscape, and began painting rocks and boulders isolated from their settings.
“I think I was feeling a little stagnant,” he said about his landscapes. “I just started doing some studies and things, and by focusing in on one piece and putting all my energy into that, and having it go pretty detailed, I started really liking the absence of any notes of scale. Some of the boulders were the size of a house, and others you could hold in your hand. But once they were rendered, no one had any idea how big they were.”
In his previous solo exhibition in Santa Fe, Natural Lines, he presented a series of botanical silhouettes, showing trees against solid-colored backgrounds. It was 2011, and the show was mounted at Riva Yares Gallery, founded by Dennis Yares’ mother, Riva, on Grant Avenue in 1991. “The show we did on Grant Avenue was not as definitive and precise in detail as this work,” the younger Yares said. “It was more abstract and more in the realm of a colorist, or even a Color Field artist. He’s gone from something bold, with minimal elements, to something entirely complex.”
Although Cavanaugh is a watercolorist, he is showing one grid of 16 small-scale oil paintings of tree trunks, each one only slightly larger than 8 by 6 inches. What’s remarkable about the oils is how much they resemble his watercolors, the largest of which — a painting of a banyan tree in Maui titled Monster in the Church Yard — is nearly 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
“The most difficult medium is watercolor,” Yares said. “It’s unforgiving. I admire his precision. To me, technique and application is as important as the composition itself. I think that’s what really identifies Sean Cavanaugh from his contemporaries.”
Monster in the Church Yard is a new painting Cavanaugh is showing for the first time. He labored over it for about five months. “It was on the easel for longer than anything I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “After that, I needed to paint things that only took a day or two. So I’ve been doing small oils on paper or quick pen-and-ink drawings.”
As a painter, Cavanaugh will go where his interests take him, he said, whether it’s painting clouds, boulders, trees, or other subjects. But the tree trunks have consumed him in recent years. And just when he thinks he’s done with them, he said, another odd or interesting-looking tree he stumbles on while out in the forest reinvigorates his passion.
“I don’t have any redwoods in here,” he said over the phone, half to himself, the gears of his mind seeming to whir. “I guess I have to do another giant painting. A life-sized chunk of a redwood would be good.” ◀
▼ Sean Cavanaugh: Under the Elder’s Gaze
▼ Yares Art, 1222 Flagman Way, 505-984-0044, yaresart.com
▼ Through Sept. 28